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Timeless Turkey

Destination - Turkey

By Russell A. Graves

Land of big-leafed cotton, mid-grass prairies, red rolling plains and one Texas music legend.

Travel time from:

  • Austin - 7.25 hours /
  • Brownsville - 13 hours /
  • Dallas - 5 hours /
  • El Paso - 7.25 hours /
  • Houston - 8.5 hours /
  • San Antonio - 6.75 hours
  • lubbock - 2.25 hours

Turning off US Highway 287 in Estelline, time seems to slow. On both sides of Highway 86, the landscape is a patchwork of mid-grass prairies and mesquite trees. Where grass doesn’t grow, neatly furrowed fields sprout a sea of big-leafed cotton. I am on my way to Turkey, where, for three days, I will explore the red rolling plains country that lies below the Caprock Escarpment.

Driving through the small burg of Estelline, my mind wanders, following the question of what the town used to be like. It was once one of the busiest cattle-shipping terminals in this part of Texas, but is now a quiet village passing time on a high bank overlooking the Prairie Dog Fork of the Red River.

The trip from Estelline to Turkey holds a place in modern Texas literature. Jane Roberts Wood’s trilogy of novels — The Train to Estelline, Dance a Little Longer and A Place Called Sweet Shrub — chronicles the struggles of a turn-of-20th-century schoolteacher as she faces life in the sometimes-inhospitable Hall County. Dan Flores’ non-fiction Caprock Canyonlands explores the natural and cultural history of the Caprock region near Turkey, and explains why the area is unique.

After a half hour, I spot Turkey’s cone-shaped water tower. From a distance, the water tower looks like it straddles the road, but the pavement takes a sharp turn as I arrive in town. The big sign alongside the road reassures me that this town is proud of its most famous native son — Bob Wills.

Universally accepted as the King of Western Swing, Bob Wills blended jazz and big band sounds with the musical textures of western life to create a trademark sound that remains popular today. Contemporary musicians like George Strait have covered a number of Bob Wills’ songs, such as Right or Wrong and Home in San Antone, on his albums, and Texas bands like Asleep at the Wheel keep Wills’ legendary music alive for fans nationwide.

While I visit Turkey, I will walk in the footsteps of the legendary fiddle player and explore a town whose quaint existence ebbs and flows more with the passing of the seasons than with the hands of a clock. For my first stop, I drive through Turkey to the town of Quitaque, where I turn south toward Monk’s Crossing.

Monk’s is an historic railroad crossing where a road traverses the old Fort Worth-Denver railroad, whose line originated at Estelline and terminated near here at the community of South Plains. Now abandoned, the rail line was converted in 1993 to a 64-mile trail that offers backcountry adventurers a chance to see a slice of rugged and remote Texas landscape. Straddling my mountain bike, I start down the trail for the mile or so to Los Lingos Creek. As I steadily pedal, the sound of gravel beneath the fat tires is nearly hypnotic. Before I know it, I spot the piece of architecture that I am here to see — an immense trestle bridge that reaches across Los Lingos Creek.

When I first arrive at the bridge, I dismount from my bike and begin to walk while I sip from a bottle of water. From my high perch, I strain to hear the sounds of modern life, but the echoes of trucks, planes and other contemporary bustlings elude me. I am alone on the trail, and my solitude gives me a chance to contemplate the historical events that occurred along this isolated valley. Named Valle de las L´grimas (Valley of Tears) by New Mexican Comancheros, this is the site where white frontier captives were bartered by Plains Indians for guns, alcohol and other supplies in an illicit ring concocted by the New Mexican traders. The era’s barbarism was portrayed in the ’80s television mini-series Lonesome Dove. In the movie, Robert Duvall’s character, Gus McCrae, rescued Diane Lane’s character, Lorena Wood, at the Valley of Tears after she’d been captured by the notorious Blue Duck.

Soon, I ride my bicycle back to the truck and head a mile or so southeast to visit the Grey Mule Cemetery. This small cemetery sits high on a bluff overlooking Quitaque Creek, and is interspersed with the graves of modern and pioneer families alike, including one old concrete grave with the words “First Grave, Unknown Cowboy” scrawled awkwardly on its face. A few feet away, an original Texas centennial historic marker tells of how the cemetery sits in the midst of what was once Charles Goodnight’s and English financier John Adair’s ranch holdings in the Panhandle.

For the rest of the day, I travel back roads to the communities of Flomot and Whiteflat and marvel at the abandoned buildings that once housed schools and businesses.

To start day two, I watch the sun rise over the red-dirt badlands of Caprock Canyons State Park. To the east, haze and light clouds soften the red light, so the cliffs of the escarpment seem to glow. To the west, a setting full moon glows bright as it falls behind an immense canyon bluff. While the morning is still cool, I hike the South Prong of the Little Red River and shoot some photographs of the now cloud-covered vistas, but before long I relocate to another part of the park and try my luck fishing Lake Theo.

Tying on an olive wooley bugger, I cast the fly several times along the bank and into some brush but ultimately have no luck. The lake is full from a recent rain and the fish don’t seem desperate to feed this morning. Therefore I spend the rest of my time exploring the cultural aspects of the park and acquainting myself with the ancient Plains Indian cultures that once roamed these canyons.

For lunch, I am back in Turkey and eat a salad at Lacy’s Too - a small deli on Turkey’s main strip. The food is good and conversation is brisk as we talk of local happenings and the importance of tourism to small Texas towns. Next, I head next door to Lacy’s Dry Goods and browse through their selection of clothing. The store is a third-generation enterprise owned by Delores Price and sports green metal ceiling tiles and an old-school charm that you can’t find in today’s big-box megastores. I leave the store with a pair of tiny Wrangler jeans for my year-old son and a western pearl-snap shirt for my little girl.

Driving around town, I am impressed with the effort it took to erect metal art street signs and how this town’s pride is evident everywhere you go. In the middle of town, the Hotel Turkey, in its 78th year of operation, greets visitors. The rooms are themed in western, outdoor and patriotic motifs and offer travelers lodging that’s both laid-back and quaint.

On the west end of town, twin fiddles top the huge granite marker that celebrates Bob Wills and his contribution to the musical tapestry of America. Wills was born in Limestone County, in the town of Kosse, but his family soon moved north of Turkey along the Red River, where they farmed cotton. Wills’ father, also a fiddler, taught his son to play, and the young Wills performed at his first ranch dance at the age of 15. Wills worked as a barber in Turkey until his early 20s when the lure of music became too strong, and he set out on his path to make history.

Located in the former elementary school, the Bob Wills Museum is full of memorabilia from the musician’s life, including his clothing, his fiddles and the awards he garnered. I take my time to look at every display, while Bob Wills’ music wafts in the background. On my way out the door, I slow down because San Antonio Rose is playing, and I can’t help thinking it would be disrespectful for me to leave now.

On the third day, I end up where I started: on the old Fort Worth-Denver rail line. This time I am headed in the opposite direction of Monk’s Crossing and Los Lingos Creek as I stare into the mouth of the immense Clarity Tunnel. The tunnel cuts a curving 742 feet through a huge sandstone wall and was one of the last tunnels to be used for railroad traffic in Texas. The tunnel is supported by immense bridge timbers and is the summer home to 50,000 Mexican free-tailed bats (Tadarida brasiliensis).

I’m not there in time to see the bats make their exit, but that’s okay. Like sojourners of old, this country calls me back, and I know that soon I’ll once again be walking in the shadow of the Caprock Escarpment, soaking in the area’s rich history and imagining the lives of the countless people who have lived and died in this beautiful yet unforgiving land.

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